Released: 27 August 1914, Keystone
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 12 mins
With: Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Charles Murray, Minta Durfee
Story: An actor working on a job on a movie screws up and is fired. Returning in drag, he’s able to charm the director to allow him back on the movie…
Production: After the throwaway ‘park’ movie that was Recreation, here’s the next favourite Keystone fallback for a ‘quickie’ filler, the movie studio-set film. Despite that, this one reeler (running at just over 12 minutes) is a decent effort, even if the only reason it exists was Mack Sennett’s desire to make sure there was plenty of new Chaplin on cinema screens across America in August 1914. Chaplin had been down this road before, in George Nichol’s A Film Johnnie—he’d learned much about filmmaking since then, so The Masquerader was his chance to make a film studio set comedy as he’d like it to be: he even plays a version of himself, rather than the more familiar Tramp character. Later Chaplin shorts set in and around a film studio would include His New Job (1915) and Behind the Screen (1916), so the concept remained popular.
Chaplin is first seen in his ‘civilian’ clothes, essentially playing himself, chatting with an unbilled Mabel Normand. He transforms into the then world-famous figure of the Tramp, but his eye is caught by a pair of young ladies, causing him to miss a cue and so ruin a take (it has to be wondered, given Chaplin’s later romantic reputation, how much of this might be straight-forward autobiography?). Fired from the movie, he returns, this time as the leading lady in a drag outfit that’s a lot better than the one he sported in A Busy Day back in May. Here, he’s actually trying to pass as a woman. He’d do it again later in A Woman (1915).
Chaplin’s biographer David Robinson calls The Masquerader ‘a simple knockabout set in a film studio, mainly notable for its behind-the-screen glimpses of the Keystone lot’. That’s a fair summing up of the movie, and like many of the earlier films that offered views of the now long-gone open spaces of Los Angeles, or glimpses of the city under construction, The Masquerader does open a window onto exactly what life behind-the-scenes at Keystone might have been like (allowing for comic exaggeration). Assuming it would have been easier simply to shoot in a real dressing room rather than construct one for the film, it seems likely the one on screen seen being shared by Arbuckle and Chaplin was, indeed, the real thing. Whether they really played pranks, such as that pulled by Fatty with the hair tonic bottle, remains unconfirmed… The scene of the pair putting on their character make-up, though, anticipates a similar one between Chaplin and Buster Keaton in the elegiac Limelight (1952) towards the end of the great clown’s film career.
The film we see being made looks like the kind of melodrama Chaplin simply wasn’t making at this stage (although he’d get there with The Kid, 1921). Charged with dashing in to rescue a baby from a knife-wielding villain, he’s distracted by two pretty actresses, only to foul up the filming. After trying to stop Chester Conklin from stealing his part and kicking the director in the pants, Chaplin finds himself out of work (something unlikely to have happened for real at this point in his career, no matter how many takes he ruined).
The curious mix of Chaplin-as-himself and Chaplin-as-the-Tramp doesn’t really work, as he quickly adopts the role of the Tramp and sticks to it during the filming and after he’s fired, rather than reverting to the role of ‘Charlie Chaplin, struggling film actor’. It’s an odd conceit that the film doesn’t really pull off, as if Chaplin himself hasn’t thought too deeply about the difference between the two: himself and the character he’d come to call ‘the little fellow’.
The transformation into a woman is achieved with a quick cut, relying on the audience recognising the leading man has now dragged up to wangle his way back into the film studio. Dan Kamin, writing in The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion, makes the point that ‘Chaplin’s art begins and ends with movement. Chaplin isn’t just pretending to be a woman, he becomes a woman—and a very attractive one at that. The effect is at once startling, unnerving, and very funny.’ Soon he’s turning heads throughout the studio and a contract is quickly proffered by the same director who fired him. Chaplin’s subtle wink at the audience at this point co-opts the viewer in his masquerade.
As he transforms back into the Tramp, it is fascinating to be given a glimpse of Chaplin applying the trademark make-up on Keystone’s premises, something that must’ve been a near daily occurrence for the increasingly world famous movie star.
Chaplin had only been working at Keystone for about eight months when this short was made, but he was now the biggest star on the lot and a young man (aged just 25 by now) who was in a hurry to apply what he was learning about the possibilities of film to his own productions, feeling increasingly hampered by the well-worn Keystone formula which he has clearly begun to evolve beyond.
In The Masquerader, Chaplin had completed the trajectory he’d been on from a neophyte visiting the studio in A Film Johnnie to the key member of Keystone’s comedy team. His time at Keystone, however, was slowly drawing to an end as his fame grew ever larger.
Slapstick: Chaplin and Fatty bump heads in the dressing room, while during the filming he uses the unfortunate baby (thankfully a dummy or doll) as a weapon, before sticking the (presumably equally fake) knife in the villain’s backside. Thrown out of their dressing room to make way for the ‘lady’, Keystone’s actors rebel, leading to a fast and frantic finale in which a melee, a chase through the studio, and the requisite brick throwing concludes with Chaplin/the Tramp stuffed down a well.
Verdict: Movie making as Keystone slapstick, 3/5
Next: His New Profession (31 August 1914)
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